The uncanny is that which is frightening but which is familiar at the same time,
“[T]he ‘uncanny’ is that class of terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar.” (Freud: Pp369)
Chucky creeped the heck out of me as a child, and then when I became an adult, I was even more shocked at my reaction to it. Then Toy story came and Sid made a whole collection of monstrous toys, combining elements from different dolls and Toys and created something rather… Uncanny.
Because the uncanny is familiar, yet strange, it often creates cognitive dissonance within the experiencing subject due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted to, yet repulsed by an object at the same time. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the object, as one would rather reject than rationalize. – Wikipedia
When we looked at the Uncanny last year in Art Criticism I was faced with this understanding that what in fact made these dolls and toys so damn creepy was indeed their strange familiarity, or familiar strangeness.
Many modern dictionaries often define the uncanny as something that is supernaturally eerie and unsettling because of this eerie nature. When looking at the word supernatural as something that is beyond the natural and combining it with the familiarity of the natural, the uncanny can be seen to be as something which is at the same time strange, unfamiliar and beyond natural and that which is familiar.
Toys are able to come to life and are designed with human characteristics, they resemble humans (and animals) and are inextricably linked with our childhood fears, anxieties, comforts and psyches. As a child I recall having a particular doll which I looked after as if it were a child. When encountering Chucky by accident on television I was completely frightened of my own doll. Would it too, come to life and haunt me? I would hide it under blankets and other less familiar toys. It was in the “supernatural” quality of the walking combined with its complete normalcy and familiarity in my life and its resemblance to a real baby that scared me.
There is something similar in cultural practices of clowning. There is something strange in that painted face that is always smiling that renders the clown a figure of uneasiness for me. They have always creeped me out, and still do, maybe encountering Pennywise in It didn’t help with that.
As a child I would often mangle my Barbie dolls and rip off their heads and replace them with heads of other dolls. I would also often just mangle my dolls in general. Pop! an arm off. Pop! a head back on. Pop! off the torso. Although this may seem rather Sid-like, it was strangely therapeutic for me to pop the body parts on and off, of these childhood icons. It was a de(con)struction and reconstruction of my own self-hood that I was playing out with each Pop!
A while ago, I encountered these pet toys which are battery operated to “breathe” while they “sleep”. These toys made the hair stand on the back of my neck, and made me think of Taxidermy practices gone horrifically wrong, and Liam Neeson’s character in After.life.
Post mortem photography was incredibly popular in the 19th and 20th Centuries. Grieving families would commission photographs’ of the recently deceased- often the only visual remnants of their beloved dead that they would keep. The Photographs were often styled in order for the deceased to appear as if sleeping or still alive. It is in the realisation that the people in the photograph’s are in fact deceased that we may feel that tingle of the uncanny upon our flesh…
All Blog content is copyright of Nightshade 2012 Author of Thepurplebroom.wordpress.com unless otherwise stated
Freud, S. (1950) The Uncanny in Sigmund Freud, Collected Papers, vol 4. Transl. Joan Riviere, London: Hogarth Press:
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